Converting Christians to Christianity

Some meandering thoughts today…

I saw this quote the other day in an article and it nicely captured for me the heart of Pope Francis’ Franciscan reforming style:

The real difference between Francis and Dominic, which is no discredit to either of them, is that Dominic did happen to be confronted with a huge campaign for the conversion of heretics, while Francis had only the more subtle task of the conversion of human beings. It is an old story that, while we may need somebody like Dominic to convert the heathen to Christianity, we are in even greater need of somebody like Francis, to convert the Christians to Christianity.

Not as much “Issues” as much Jesus 

I have been reading much in the last six months on the history and condition of Catholicism in the U.S. It’s a fascinating and too little known story. One thing that really struck me (and it’s obvious, I know) is that we are a terribly, internally fractured lot, deeply embedded in our political culture’s polarizing approach to everything; and our evangelizing/culture-war strategies have become largely and inextricably tangled up in that hardened “right-left/liberal-conservative” paradigm that dominates much of our discourse and creates such unhelpful, artificial ideological clusters that make bizarre bedfellows, e.g. Vehement opponents of the death penalty are equally vehement supporters of abortion. An obvious consequence of this state of affairs is that the Gospel, the real core of the Christian proclamation, is obscured. What is that obscured proclamation?

The Word through whom the Father created all things, Jesus Christ, died and rose and lives for ever to free us from sin, to reconcile us to himself and one another, to grant us the unthinkable privilege of sharing in the divine life, to empower all humanity to live the truth in love, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead by the standard of his eternal Gospel.

To speak that Gospel is why the Church exists. It’s the soul of her mission to make that proclamation accessible to humanity. Everything else the Christian does is auxiliary or preparatory for that proclamation.

To Evangelize or to Catechize?

After thinking long on this in September, a theologically impassioned friend of mine called me. As we spoke, I shared with him what I had been reading and the various questions I had raised in response to my reading. In the midst of our conversation, he shared some very insightful observations on how the Catholic Church in the U.S. has tended to handle the recent cultural crises. I’ll sum up some his comments briefly:

In general, I think that the Church should focus on proclaiming this central message of the Gospel to nonbelievers and quit trying to catechize them, that is, to teach them how to live a Christian life. She should address her catechesis only to believers in the Gospel, and take care to make it clear how that catechesis is carrying out Jesus’ command to teach those who have responded to evangelization, with faith and baptism and “all that I have commanded you.” Now, as a Catholic I obviously support reasonable advocacy efforts that work to preserve truth and justice in our law based on a natural law vision of the good. But we tend to obsess on the ethical “issues,” on winning arguments, and we tend to so politicize our faith that one wonders where encountering the Risen Christ and His redeeming grace fits in. Catholics need to become far more comfortable speaking about their personal and Catholic faith in the God of Jesus Christ with their neighbors, friends and co-workers, and not just about their stance on politically charged “issues,” employing reasonable arguments. Though reason and faith are mutually inclusive, for a Christian even the best thinking can only find its fulfillment in the dialogue partner encountering Jesus. I think of a woman who had come through RCIA a few years ago, and said to me: “What changed my mind on abortion in the end was the realization that if I desire intimacy with God and holiness, the idea of killing my pre-born child just seems absurd; just like adultery seems most absurd in the light of my love for and intimacy with my husband, and not because of some abstract argument.” Good thinking and good arguments can help cultivate the soil, but without inviting Jesus into our strident advocacy we’re just self-made, self-sufficient Pelagians. Catholics have to think this way: Jesus really wants to be invited into our culture, into our neighbor’s home, into our cubicle at work, into the political order. And you’re his only “in”!

In this vein, he referenced Pope Benedict’s Inaugural Homily, and especially B16’s reference to the “fear” that Catholics can feel in regard to speaking freely of Jesus in American ears — let me quote the part of the homily he referred to here:

At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society. The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.

“Imagine if we really believed,” my friend said, “that being open about our faith in Jesus was not a threat to anyone, but rather was a supremely liberating and freeing and fulfilling action that possessed the inner power to transform minds and hearts from within, giving people the hope they need to be good and the courage they need to do good. It’s really risky, but I think if we risk it we might actually be Christian then!”

He also mentioned similar points made in a book by Dr. Peter Kreeft, Jesus Shock, which then reminded me of a portion of a lecture Kreeft gave that really grabbed my imagination:

Why is it that if you were to mention the name of Buddha, Mohammed or Confucius you would be viewed as someone who has an open mind, is well read and informed, but, if you mention the name of Jesus, the conversation gets uncomfortable? I think it is Jesus’ fault. After all, Buddha, Mohammed or Confucius were great moral teachers. They pointed their followers to something greater than themselves. They would say, “don’t look to me, look to my teaching.” Jesus on the other hand doesn’t point to anything greater than himself. He doesn’t say, “follow my teaching” he says, “follow me!” That is a pretty bold statement.

All other religious leaders have used a sort of third point of reference. The “meaning of life” can be spoken of in the third person. You can disregard the teaching without disregarding the teacher. That doesn’t work with Jesus because he is his teaching. He isn’t just the messenger, he is the message. The two are inseparable. Jesus doesn’t tell us that he will show us the way, the truth and the life. He says, “I AM the way, the truth and the life.” You can’t reject Jesus’ way without rejecting Jesus.

Jesus requires a response; He provokes a response. For some it is a response of adoration and worship; for others it is a response of anger and hate. Why would one respond in anger? Because when we look Jesus, he shows us ourselves. When we look at Jesus, we see our true selves; and we don’t like what we see.

I’ll leave you with that Kari Jobe song I’ve embedded here before — it just says it so simply and well:

5 comments on “Converting Christians to Christianity

  1. Ona says:

    I find this topic intriguing personally. I converted via a call to the heart, not because of any argument (I had barely been in a church and read only a few fragments of the Bible with little interest before the day I walked into the local Catholic parish and unintentionally (seriously) asked the priest to baptize me).

    And when some months later a zealous Protestant acquaintance decided I needed a good long lecture on why I had chosen the wrong church, and spent a good couple hours opening book after book to point out all the texts that proved this or that, I found myself utterly baffled. I remained silent, but wondered at point after point – do people really go to church because someone argued them into it? do people love God because someone scared them into it? do people believe in Christ because of historical data or rationalizations? What I wanted to know, and have never discovered, is whether his own faith was fueled by the same fire in the heart that fueled mine. I would think that after decades of committed belief it would have to be so. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to discuss that, because “lawyer mode” was on, and wouldn’t turn off.

    In contrast, what has built my own faith even more deeply is meeting Catholic after Catholic who shines with love – sisters, priests, lay people who are so giving, so generous, so welcoming and so awe-struck with God’s beauty and presence that you can feel it viscerally. They are ordinary human beings – flawed as all of us – but always holding onto that love and living it outwardly as well as inwardly. And of course there are plenty of folks who seem to be wandering along, showing up and repeating words without really paying attention. But in that atmosphere of ever-giving love I have seen many of the wandering disconnected sort growing over the past couple years that I’ve known them, becoming ever more that soft wax in God’s tender hands. It’s beautiful to see that happen.

    Anyway, this may not be what draw everyone, and may not be how many feel, or may not be the same in every place. But reading Scripture, I don’t understand how any of it can make any sense without Love. All the “rules and regulations” make utter sense in Love. It seems to be the most necessary part, somehow. I’m grateful to be home.

    • Ona, Thank you for taking time to share your eloquent personal testimony to this evangelizing dynamic of the heart. I think there are a diversity of ways that lead to faith, but I also think the heart is the common thread that unites them all — and here your lovely words made me think of GK Chesterton’s words, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Thanks, Ona, for sharing yours. Pax!

  2. Ona says:

    I felt silly for gushing after I commented, like a teenage girl writing about a crush in her diary. I do feel I need to broaden my understanding of that “diversity of ways,” so I can be more sensitive to those with other perspectives.

    • Oh my! What I meant by diversity of ways was that some are drawn to Christ by reasoned arguments, others by the touch of love, others by the experience of suffering, others by the sight of beauty, others by a desire for justice, others by a quest for peace, and so on. It was not meant simply as a vapid affirmation of diversity for diversity’s sake, but rather of the wonderful array of paths to Christ! As you said so well: “this may not be what draws everyone, and may not be how many feel, or may not be the same in every place.”
      Re your gush, it is a gift! Thank you for contributing to my blog now and again. It’s always gold.

      • Ona says:

        I understood that I think. What I meant was appreciating how deep that faith can be, even if it isn’t my own experience. I suppose God leads each of us to the water in the way He knows will work best for our character, strengths, weaknesses and personality.

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